It’s the “Year of Stepanova” – and the poet has a few things to say about Putin and Russia’s perilous present

April 16th, 2021
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Feeling alive: Maria Stepanova on the steps of Stanford’s Green Library (Photo: C.L. Haven)

“It is something very intimate, the way we communicate with the dead.”

The Guardian called 2021 “the year of Stepanova” for good reason. Russian poet Maria Stepanova’s new book, In Memory of Memory (New Directions), has been long-listed for the Booker Prize. Given the incandescent reviews, it is likely to be her break-out book in the West, giving her overdue recognition for works that have made her one of Russia’s most recognized writers. The Russian poet and essayist has two more books out this spring: The Voice Over: Poems and Essays (Columbia University Press) and War of the Beasts and the Animals (Bloodaxe).

Entitled Opinions’ host Robert Pogue Harrison interviewed her during her Stanford visit in 2016, and her words are as timely today as they were then. You can listen to the discussion HERE. The conversation began with a discussion of one of her other high-profile roles: she’s the publisher of the online Colta, Russia’s first crowd-sourced journal, which has been compared to a Russian Huffington Post and The New York Review of Books combined.

The conversation focused on the Russia’s “schizoid” treatment of the past and present.

She noted that whether he realizes it or not, Putin is performing a parody of Soviet empire. “The main difference is there is no meaning under Putin’s reign – no inner meaning, no hidden meaning, and no explicit meaning … no brand of an idea,” she said. “And so people are disoriented.”

“We’re living in a country where we have a corpse that has been lying in the Red Square  for almost a hundred years,” she said. “People still think the dead are the best governors.”

“In Russia, nothing is solid. You’re always expecting some ugly turn of reality, in your own biography or in the country’s story. Anything can happen,” she continued. “We are prepared to consider our present state acceptable as long as things don’t get worse.” Media has been replaced by propaganda, and unreliable sources have replaced informed knowledge. “The experts sitting at the roundtable are different kinds of freaks – futurologists, conspiralogists, astrologists, whatever. … Nothing is real.”

What role for poetry? Stepanova sees some positive aspects to the current turmoil: “Now the poetry audience is getting much, much wider – maybe it’s what happens in times of big historical shifts, when people are expecting poetry to give them some kind of an answer – or maybe a question.”

Stay tuned also for Stepanova’s impressive, intensely musical reading of her poem, “The Women’s Changing Room at ‘Planet Fitness.’” (Robert Harrison reads the poem in English.)

I also interviewed Stepanova for the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

About Maria Stepanova

Maria Stepanova was already an important and innovative poet by the time of Vladimir Putin’s accession, but the times called for a tougher, more public role. Today, she is one of the most visible figures in post-Soviet culture – not only as a poet, but as a journalist, a publisher, and a powerful voice for press freedom.

She is the founder of the Colta, the first independent crowd-funded source of information that exists in Russia today. The online publication has been called a Russian Huffington Post in format and style – and also compared to the New York Review of Books for the scope and depth of its long essays.

She is the author of eleven poetry collections and the recipient of several Russian and international awards (including the prestigious Andrey Bely Prize, the Berlin Brücke Prize for the novel, and Joseph Brodsky Fellowship).

You can listen to the conversation HERE. An article about Maria Stepanova’s recent Stanford talk is here

“Even our inner reality is ruled by the dead. They are the inner deities.”


POTENT QUOTES:

“In Russia, the dead are never dead enough.”

“The past never dies. It never goes away. It is still active.”

“We are prepared to consider our imperfect present state acceptable as long as things don’t get worse.”

“The real problem of contemporary Russia is not in our obsession with the past, but in the fear of the future.”

“If you don’t feel like you can belong to a future, then it’s very hard to feel that you can belong to a past.”

The odd couple: Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky and the man who brought him into English, George Kline

April 11th, 2021
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The introduction to my new book, The Man Who Brought Brodsky Into English: Conversations with George L. Kline, is online over at The Literary Hub, known to most of us as LitHub or simply “The Hub.”

You can read it here. Or you can start below:

George L. Kline translated more of Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky’s poems than any other single person, with the exception of Brodsky himself. He described himself to me as “Brodsky’s first serious translator.” Bryn Mawr’s Milton C. Nahm Professor of Philosophy was a modest and retiring man, but on occasion he could be as forthright and adamant as Brodsky himself. In a 1994 letter, the Slavic scholar wrote: “Akhmatova discovered Brodsky for Russia, but I discovered him for the West.” And in 1987, “I was the first in the West to recognize him as a major poet, and the first to translate his work in extenso.” It was all true. He was, moreover, one of the few translators who was a fluent Russian speaker.

Brodsky’s first book in America, 1973’s Joseph Brodsky: Selected Poems, changed my life as well as the poet’s—and all the translations were Kline’s. The meditative poems of time, consciousness, suffering, alienation, even redemption sounded a note that was octaves above the free-form narcissism, the weary story of the self that typified American poetry at the time. This book established a Western audience for Brodsky, and blew open a window to the East. I studied with him at the University of Michigan, and that was a formative experience, too, as it was for so many of his protégées who became writers in his wake.

This is the story of how that book was born, and what happened in the years following. The three-decade collaboration of Kline and Brodsky is a tale that has not been told in its entirety until now.

The first translation one reads of a foreign poet makes an indelible impression, and so I confess a bias, since Kline’s translations were the first that I read. But my preference wasn’t wholly subjective; and I wasn’t alone—they made an impression on the entire Anglophone world. They also launched a stunning, unconventional literary career in the West for Brodsky.

***

He was obviously not a superstar poet—such as Richard Wilbur, or Seamus Heaney, or Anthony Hecht, who also translated Brodsky’s poetry although they didn’t know Russian—but rather a Slavic scholar with a serious interest in poetry. This book shows how deep this philosopher’s commitment was, and that these poems were not the whimsy of a dilettante. His translations were important not only because they were the first, but because they tried to preserve, as Brodsky wished, the metrical and rhyme schemes of the original, often with surprising sensitivity and success.

As I pored over the book with the stylized green-and-purple portrait on the cover as a university student, I knew nothing of the translator, George L. Kline. Yet the book, the man, and the poet would be one of the more remarkable adventures of my life. The three of us formed an unlikely troika of temperaments and training, friendship and estrangements.

George was meticulous, reserved, and deeply principled; Brodsky was an evident genius, a Catherine wheel of a man, who fraternized with the leading cultural figures of his time. The two were lucky to have found each other; yet their personalities were worlds apart. I entered the scene writing about both men decades later, undoubtedly one of the girls described in Brodsky’s 1972 poem “In the Lake District,” the place where he had been appointed “to wear out the patience of the ingenuous local youth.”

Read the rest here.

“Mass and class” for the book industry? Says Steve Wasserman: “I’d go for class every time.”

April 8th, 2021
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Our masked man in Berkeley, Steve Wasserman

Six years ago we wrote about Berkeley publisher Steve Wasserman of Heyday Books and his suggestions for the Eros of Difficulty. Here is an addendum, in his own words:

When I ran the Los Angeles Times Book Review (1996-2005) I was temperamentally allergic to the notion, widespread in the newsroom, that the paper must reflect the alleged interests of its readers.

That notion, in the digital age, has now achieved a kind of hegemony. It’s the metric that rules. The underlying presumption is that the paper (or now website) must act as a “mirror” reflecting readers’ “interests,” otherwise the paper risked being “out of touch.” Only in this way, it was argued, could the bond between readers and the paper be strengthened. I thought then – and think now – this was exactly wrong. Rather, a better analogy would be the telescope, which when looked through one end makes near things appear distant, thus throwing them into sharp relief and providing a useful and unsuspected perspective. Or, alternatively, turned around and looked through at the other end makes faraway things appear closer, thus giving us an opportunity to see afresh things that otherwise might escape our attention. I felt it was important to spurn the faux populism of the marketplace. I sought to honor what Mary Lou Williams, the jazz pianist and composer, said about her obligation to her audience and her art: “I … keep a little ahead of them, like a mirror that shows what will happen next.”

I wanted to give readers the news that stays news. Of course, ideally I wanted what Otis Chandler in his heyday had wanted: mass and class. But if it came down to a choice between the two, I knew I’d go for class every time. In literary affairs, I was always a closet Leninist: Better fewer, but better. Today, my friend, the brilliant and resourceful Rochelle Gurstein, sent me a lovely quote from Ernst Gombrich (writing in his 1969 essay “Art and Self-Transcendence”), which had I known it, I would have emblazoned it on the door to my office: “This parrot cry of relevance seems to me total nonsense. … The egocentric provincialism of people who so lack the capacity for self-transcendence that they can only listen to what touches their own individual problems threatens us with such intellectual impoverishment that we must resist at all costs.”

He knew.

Some weeks ago, Rochelle had plucked from Joshua Reynolds‘s farewell discourses on art, this gem. Reynolds, taking his leave from the Academy of Art he’d founded, surprised his audience (and later readers, as Rochelle wrote to me) by offering Michelangelo as the greatest artist and the one students ought to take as their exemplar over Raphael whose virtues he had been at pains to praise in the preceding fourteen lectures. Now, Reynolds tells his audience, “We are on no account to expect that fine things should descend to us; our taste, if possible, must be made to ascend to them.” Against those who believe they can trust their first impressions, Reynolds insists, “As [Michelangelo’s] great style itself is artificial in the highest degree, it presupposes in the spectator, a cultivated and prepared artificial state of mind. It is an absurdity therefore to suppose that we are born with this taste, though we are with the seeds of it, which, by the heat and kindly influence of his genius, may be ripened in us.”

“The rhetoric of tranquility is stronger”: My Q&A with the late great Adam Zagajewski at the “Los Angeles Review of Books”

April 6th, 2021
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My Q&A with the late great Polish poet is now up over at the Los Angeles Review of Books here. The title: “’Poetry Has to Defend Itself’: A Conversation with Adam Zagajewski.”

An excerpt from the long-ago interview (circa 2006, I think):

What is this disease that you have identified – this relaxing into irony, if not cynicism – and how do we cure it?  And why have two prominent Polish poets struggle with it so consciously and conspicuously?  I ask because so many are completely oblivious to it – and it is a noticeable feature in both your writing and Milosz’s. 

I recall your comments about the influence of Nietzsche:  Noting his minting of such terms as “superman,” “will to power,” “beyond good and evil” – and adding that “someone once rightly observed that beyond good and evil lies only evil” – you suggested that without these influences, “the spiritual atmosphere of our century might have been purer and perhaps even prouder.” 

Well, the disease of irony seems to be well identified. I adore irony as a part of our rich rhetorical and mental apparatus but not when it assumes the position of a spiritual guidance. How to cure it? I wish I knew. The danger is that we live in a world where there’s irony on one side and fundamentalism (religious, political) on the other. Between them the space is rather small but it’s my space.

You wrote: “We need to go on, paying the price, sometimes, of being not only imperfect but even, who knows, arrogant and ridiculous.”

My temperament is different. Sometimes I wish I were an arrogant prophet, an aggressive guy. But my force – if I have any – is different, it lives more in nuances, in tranquility of my voice. Somehow I hope that the rhetoric of tranquility is after all stronger and more long-term than the one of a furious attack.

***

The future of poetry.  I know this sounds trite – the lamenting of poetry as an “endangered species.” But as someone who writes about poetry for a living, I know what a tough sell it is.  Despite the national drumbeating for “Poetry Month,” we live in a world where long, slow thoughts are disappearing.

What do you think?  What is the future for us who like to spend our days chewing the end of a pen and having long thoughts?

We’ll be living in small ghettos, far from where celebrities dwell, and yet in every generation there will be a new delivery of minds that will love long and slow thoughts and books and poetry and music, so that these rather pleasant ghettos will never perish–and one day may even stir more excitement than we’re used to now.

You wrote that Erbarme Dich is the heart of civilization. Comment?

Bach represents the center and the synthesis of the western music. To say, as I did, that this particular aria is the center of western music is a leap of faith, of course. I couldn’t prove it. I love this aria.

Read the rest at the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

And for Adam … the “Erbarme Dich.

Robert Pogue Harrison on Shirley Hazzard, and the “preposterous puzzles” of our lives

March 30th, 2021
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She’s not just distinguished, but major.
(Photo: Christopher Peterson)

Stanford’s Robert Pogue Harrison has an excellent retrospective of Australian novelist Shirley Hazzard over at the current issue of the Sydney Review of Books. We featured his recent conversation on the author here. Don’t know her work? This is a matchless introduction. No surprise it’s generating enthusiasm on the social media.

It begins:

The only time I heard Shirley Hazzard use the word ‘hate’ during the thirteen years I knew her was one night in Rome when I walked her back to the Hassler Hotel after a dinner at Otello on Via della Croce. (For half a century, both with and without her husband Francis Steegmuller, she stayed in the same room at the Hassler Hotel whenever she was in Rome, and only occasionally did she and I ever dine at a restaurant other than Otello when we got together in Rome). I mentioned something about a place that had changed. She stopped in her tracks, put her hand on my arm, and declared: ‘I hate change.’

Given how many tumultuous and destructive transformations the world underwent during her lifetime, one can understand Hazzard’s aversion to change. That aversion also accounts for her attachment to the city of Naples, about which she wrote so eloquently and where she owned a home. What she prized above all about Naples was its unaltered landscape. As she once remarked to me, were Virgil to sail into its bay today, he would recognize all the lineaments of his adoptive city.

During her lifetime Shirley Hazzard published four novels, two collections of short stories, and six non-fiction books. One of the novels – The Transit of Venus (1980) – is a masterpiece that has earned her the status of a major writer rather than merely a distinguished one. The enduring devotion Hazzard has inspired in her readers – a devotion that comes through in the many high-profile reviews that the recently published Collected Stories elicited in the United States and England – is due mostly to the lasting impression this novel made on us. As the centre of Hazzard’s corpus, The Transit of Venus now shapes our perception of the books that preceded and followed it.

A quotation to remember:

Hazzard’s evaluation of Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm applies to her own fiction as well: “The matter in hand here is no less than existence: our brief incarnation in a human experience, our efforts to make a coherence of, or retreat from, the improbable combinations of flesh, feeling, vanity, virtue, and reason laid upon us like preposterous puzzles.”

Read the whole thing here.

“The Man Who Brought Brodsky into English”: a Q&A

March 27th, 2021
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Boston College”s Prof. Maxim D. Shrayer, author of Waiting for America and Leaving Russia, interviewed me about my new book just out this month: I’m happy to say The Man Who Brought Brodsky into English: George L. Kline in Conversation is now available wherever you buy books. The interview:

Cynthia, let me begin by asking you to describe your path to the book—a double path that led you to Joseph Brodsky and to George L. Kline.

9781644695135.jpg

I studied with Joseph Brodsky at the University of Michigan—his first port of call in the U.S. It was psychological and aesthetic jolt, like sticking your finger into a light socket. And yes, we memorized hundreds of lines of poetry in his classes.

For many of us, Brodsky’s Selected Poems in 1973 was a radical reorganization of what poetry can be and mean in our times. However, I didn’t connect with the book’s translator, George Kline, until after I published Joseph Brodsky: Conversations in 2002. George and I stayed connected with Christmas cards and occasional phone calls. But we’d never actually met face to face—so I had no real sense of his age, until in late 2012, when he mentioned that he was almost 92.

George was a champion for Joseph Brodsky and his poetry—many people know that, but many don’t know that he was also a wise and kindly supporter of poets, Slavic scholars, and translators everywhere. He had never given a full account of his collaboration with the Russian-born Nobel poet, however, and I realized time was running out. So we began recording conversations.

His health was failing, and our talks became shorter and more infrequent. Towards the end, he urged me to augment our interviews with his articles, correspondence, and papers, reconstructing a portrait of his collaboration with Brodsky. George died in 2014.

His death was a huge loss for the field of Russian studies. But for you and your work, unimaginable… What was it like continuing without him?

The effort was more than a jigsaw puzzle. I felt like I was carefully gluing together a model airplane to take us to another world – a world that began with Soviet Leningrad in the 1960s where George met the young red-headed poet and ended with the poet’s death at his home in Brooklyn in 1996. More than that, it was the world that Brodsky created with his poems, which they both inhabited.

What role did Kline play in Brodsky’s life and literary career, and what did Brodsky mean to Kline?

George translated more of Brodsky’s poetry into English than anyone else, with the exception of Brodsky himself. Poetry was an avocation for George, but my goodness—look at how George evolved as a translator from his early “Elegy for John Donne” to his stunning translation of “The Butterfly” a decade later!

Incidentally, many people also do not know that Kline was a highly regarded Slavic scholar, writing about Russian religion and philosophy. His obituaries in journals focused on that work, not his work with Joseph Brodsky!

Joseph Brodsky was the adventure of George Kline’s life, I think. He found himself lunching with world poets and attending the Nobel awards ceremonies in Stockholm. But it wasn’t his world or natural habitat, and George knew that.

How would you describe Kline’s approach to translating Brodsky? Why do you think Brodsky—who at times wasn’t easy to please—appreciated Kline’s translations?

It was an unlikely partnership, in temperament and training, but one trait they shared was a commitment to maintaining the formal scheme—rhyme, meter, and so on—of the original poem.

George was also insistent that nothing be added to or subtracted from the poem. Of course, Joseph changed his poems freely, but that was the poet’s prerogative—not the translator’s.

I said that George evolved as a translator—well, Brodsky changed, too. He was extremely lucky to have found Kline early in his poetic career. But as he became an internationally recognized writer, he had a greater range of translators to choose from, some of them outstanding poets in their own right: Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur, Derek Walcott among them. George sometimes felt sidelined, inevitably. But George had a full, rich life of his own.

A riveting teacher at the University of Michigan
(Photo: Terrence McCarthy)

Where do you think Brodsky’s poetry, often described as “metaphysical,” found common ground with Kline’s own philosophical interests and pursuits?

They both had a sacred vision of the world—and of the word. Both defy easy categorization. Kline was loosely “Unitarian,” Brodsky caught or suspended between Judaism and Christianity. At one point he described himself as a Calvinist, at other times his vision seemed almost Catholic—given his love of Italy, how could it be otherwise?

George remembers seeing a volume of Nikolay Berdyaev on Brodsky’s desk when he first visited the poet’s his Leningrad room—The Philosophy of the Free Spirit. That may indicate his turn of mind as well. Another point of connection with the philosophy professor.

One poem Kline loved, and that he unfailingly presented at readings, was Brodsky’s “Nunc Dimittis.” It’s Jewish and Christian, illustrating the transition between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, both powerfully represented. The dying Simeon and the infant Christ, who grows in cosmic and historical dimensions. That poem alone shows the fusion of those two sides of himself.

The years since his early days have seen many more translations. How do you feel about more recent English retranslations of Brodsky’s poems? 

The more the merrier. Kline himself wanted to see more translations of Brodsky’s work, he was a translation “liberal.” There are always trade-offs in translation. He wanted to see what others would do. Brodsky is said to be untranslatable. If so, the best we can do is have multiple translations and triangulate meaning. As English speakers living in 21st century America, we also need to have a better understanding of the art of translation—and its necessary choices, sacrifices, limits. That’s what this book is for.

Finally, Cynthia, if one were to play devil’s advocate or dismiss totalizing explanations by suggesting that Kline wasn’t the only person who “brought Brodsky into English”—there were after all W.H. Auden and Carl Proffer—what might your response be?

Oh heavens! I would never wish to diminish the legacy of either of those remarkable men. Both are pivotal in Brodsky’s story. I’m delighted that mine is the second book—after Ellendea Proffer Teasley’s Brodsky Among Us—to appear in the book series you curate for Academic Studies Press. Both the Proffers had vital roles in Joseph’s life and work. There should be a statue to them in Russia. I’ve said that before.

Carl Proffer brought Brodsky to America, meeting him in Vienna, changing the poet’s plans and planes, diverting him to the U.S., and finagling a University of Michigan appointment for the young man who had dropped out of school at 15. Joseph himself said that Carl Proffer “was simply an incarnation of all the best things that humanity and being American represent.”

W.H. Auden’s foreword in Selected Poems was critical. It launched Brodsky’s first important book in the West. It also began a personal friendship that was foundational for Brodsky as a poet and a human being. But Auden didn’t bring the poems into English.

George made a home for Joseph in the English language, beginning in the first days of his exile, as they revised poems together at Goose Pond in the Berkshires. George Kline is behind the Selected—not only in his translations, but in getting it published at a high level where it would get the world attention it merited.

Don’t forget that when Kline heard about the Nobel prize on the radio, he called London to offer his congratulations to Brodsky. The poet replied, “And congratulations to you, too, George.”

Cynthia, congratulations to you on the book, and may it have a long life.


Joseph Brodsky teaching at the University of Michigan, Spring 1973 (Photo: Terrence McCarthy)


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